Clegg's "centre ground" strategy will alarm Lib Dem members

Unlike their leader, most Lib Dem supporters continue to think of themselves as on the left.

Nick Clegg isn't due to address the Lib Dem conference until 2:30pm, but here's one striking line from the advance excerpts. The Deputy PM will tell party members: "we work every day to keep this Government anchored in the centre ground." Given the coalition's abolition of the 50p income tax rate and its reckless reform of the NHS (the two policies that have done most to damage its poll ratings), it's a questionable claim. But, in fairness to Clegg, a Guardian/ICM poll earlier this week showed that a plurality of voters (48%) believe the government is "staying centre ground", while 27% believe it is shifting to the right and 7% believe it is heading leftwards.

What is less clear is how Clegg's decision to reposition the Lib Dems as a centrist party, one that attracts as much "vitriol and abuse" from the left as the right, will be received by his party's supporters. As Fabian Society general secretary Andrew Harrop noted on The Staggers earlier this week, polling by YouGov shows that 43% of remaining Lib Dem voters place themselves on the left, while just 8% place themselves on the right. In electoral terms, a centrist strategy makes little sense when, to avoid a disastrous defeat, the party needs to attract tactical Labour votes in Lib Dem-Tory marginals (of the 20 most marginal Lib Dems seats, 14 are Lib Dem-Tory marginals).

It is to Ed Miliband's party, not David Cameron's, that the Lib Dems are in greatest danger of losing further support. While 54% of their voters would consider switching to Labour, only 36% would countenance voting Conservative. And if the Lib Dems even want to begin to win back some of their former supporters, around 40 per cent of whom have defected to Labour, a centrist strategy will not cut it. Clegg's heart may tell him to remain in the centre, but his head should tell him to return to the left.

Nick Clegg will address the Liberal Democrat conference later today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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MPs should follow Emmanuel Macron's example and stand up to the far right

Where does a liberal centrist's victory fit into your narrative of inevitable decline? 

“Après le #Brexit, le printemps des peuples est inévitable !” wrote the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, days after Brexit. Well, the blossom is on the trees, and Le Pen is through to the second round of the French presidential elections, so presumably we’re bang in the middle of that inevitable “people’s spring”. 

After all, a referendum that left Britain’s metropolitan elite weeping into their EU flags was swiftly followed by the complete overturning of US political and ethical traditions. Donald Trump defied polling and won the Presidency, all the while proclaiming he was “Mr Brexit”.  

Then, in December, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi held a referendum on constitutional changes and lost. Both Europhiles and Eurosceptics read the runes. Ukip’s on and off leader Nigel Farage crowed of 2016: “First we had the Brexit deliverance, then the Trump triumph, then the Italian rebellion. Democracy and the rebirth of the nation state!”

As this illustrates, the far-right want you to believe all these results are linked, and that they represent a popular, democratic movement. In the UK at least, the liberal left has drunk the English champagne. Labour is agonising over how to reconnect with “traditional” voters Ukip is apparently so in touch with – which don’t seem to include ethnic minorities, young people and those living in cities. Being “tough on immigration” is the answer to modern woes, and globalisation is a dirty word that can only represent multinational interests and not, say, cheaper food on the table. 

There are debates to be had about globalisation, of course, and the lingering impact of the 2008 financial crash, and the fact wages haven’t risen, and public services have been cut, and that in some northern towns, people from different ethnic backgrounds live segregated lives. But if the first round of the French presidential election can do us one favour, it’s to dispense with the narrative that there is something inevitable about the end of liberalism. 

Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetically pro-EU social, economic and political liberal, led the way in the first round of the French presidential election. The polls put him on course to become President.

If he wins, perhaps it’s time to revisit the narrative of decline. To remind ourselves that Hillary Clinton, now written off, won the popular vote in the United States, and among growing demographics of voters too. That a far-right  Austrian presidential candidate was defeated in 2016. That as recently as March, the Dutch mainstream prevailed against the far-right original Trump, Geert Wilders, and that the left-green leader Jesse Klaver enjoyed a surge instead. And that, although it’s now commonplace to assume Canada is just “nicer” in electing a liberal, Justin Trudeau, his party actually overturned nearly a decade of tar sands Conservative rule. 

Should liberals start to join these dots, voters should have the right to ask why both Labour and the Conservatives have jumped on the populists' bandwagon so eagerly. Why, among previously economically liberal Conservatives, are Nicky Morgan, Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry left as lone voices on the back benches. And why, in Labour, is patchy research linking depressed wages and immigration now exhalted as long-established fact? 

Liberalism may be out of fashion, but it’s not dead yet, as any of the Tory MPs in south-west marginal seats know too well. By the time Farage’s “independence day” on 24 June arrives, the narrative may have changed again. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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